Experts say it’s unlikely COVID-19 passports will come about: ‘The vaccine passport could wind up being irrelevant’

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  • Experts say it’s unlikely an international COVID-19 passport travel system will come about.
  • They have flagged privacy, inequality, politics, and long-term need as the main problems.
  • Still, the travel industry is banking on a system to allow international travel to resume.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

COVID-19 passports have been hailed as the key to opening up the global economy, but some privacy and health experts doubt they’ll ever be widely accepted.

Plans to require COVID-19 passports for international travel or even entry to large venues or work offices may fumble, as critics say there’s a wide range of issues – from privacy and inequity, to continuity and longevity – standing in the way. But airlines, which took a trillion-dollar hit because of the pandemic, are banking on some kind of digital credential to get people flying internationally again.

The most likely outcome, said Bryan Del Monte, president of the Aviation Agency and a former director at the US Department of Defense, is that health passports will likely be needed only if you plan to travel internationally, but they won’t be “as big a deal as everyone thinks.”

But by the time a system is agreed upon and created, this could be a “moot” point, he told Insider.

“The vaccine passport could wind up being irrelevant because by the time everyone gets inoculated, do you really need one?” he said, noting that travelers don’t provide proof of vaccination against measles or rubella upon entering a foreign country.

Even so, these health passports have begun rolling out as proposals or beta tests, and some have even gone live in various markets across the globe.

The European Union proposed the “Digital Green Certificate,” a vaccine passport which would allow travel to 27 member countries, if approved. China, Israel, the UAE, and the Philippines are among other countries that have launched versions of their own, as well.

In the US, the White House is reportedly working on a vaccination passport that could require proof of immunization prior to traveling or entering crowded venues. And New York was the first state to launch one that would show a person’s proof of vaccination before entering large gatherings, like a basketball game or a wedding.

Nobody is talking about the ‘politics that go into this’

The World Health Organization, and even airlines, have advocated against requiring vaccination for travel. The main reasons are data on how effective vaccines are at preventing transmission plus the limited global supply, according to the WHO.

“If access to vaccine is (unequal), then inequity and unfairness can be further branded into the system,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme executive director, said on March 8.

In February, the WHO said wealthy countries with just 16% of the world’s population bought up 60% of the available COVID-19 vaccine supply. It flagged the inequality in the global immunization effort, but also said the imbalance could cause the virus to continue spreading and mutating to more dangerous variants.

In the US alone, the vaccine rollout has been disproportionate among minorities and poorer populations, who have received fewer doses of the COVID-19 vaccine despite often being at greater risk for contracting the disease.

Read more: COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker: AstraZeneca’s shot proves safe and effective, and is headed to the FDA

Some have also said international COVID-19 passports becoming standardized and globally adopted could be too big a task to accomplish.

“The technology to make this happen is very difficult, but the even more difficult part that no one’s talking about is the politics that go into this,” said Bryce Conway, consumer advocate and founder at 10xTravel, a company that helps more than 70,000 travelers navigate loyalty programs and credit card points.

In the US, for example, some Republican lawmakers have dubbed the concept of vaccine passports as dystopian.

“We can’t even agree how to row the boat in this country,” Del Monte said. “This is not going to roll out quickly.”

Internationally, if countries approve certain vaccines and not others, some immunized travelers may still be barred from entering. China, for example, has said travelers receiving its vaccine will have an easier time entering the country, and many countries have said Russia’s shot isn’t effective enough to qualify.

Conway said the most likely scenario, if a COVID-19 passport is adopted, is that various groups of countries will agree on how to accept travelers from one another.

“I don’t think you’re going to have a multinational, huge system where everyone’s on it and that’s the one standard that’s used,” he said

But Laura Hoffner, chief of staff at risk consulting firm Concentric, said the secret to creating a COVID-19 passport is getting the US to lay out protocols. Because once that happens, “the world will most likely follow suit,” she said.

On March 12, Jeff Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, said the private sector and others have already begun working on how to prove vaccination.

“Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” he said.

Still, the airline industry has asked the White House for specific guidelines on a health passport, so people can get back to flying, as international travel has plummeted 85% because of the pandemic, according to Perry Flint, head of the International Air Transport Association’s US corporate communications.

“We’re ready to get going again,” Flint said.

In a statement to Business Insider, the White House said it is “leading an interagency effort regarding vaccine verification,” but didn’t give any details on a timeline or how a passport would work.

‘We can do all of this with little pieces of paper’

Airline trade groups such as IATA and Airlines for America are advocating for a digital passport that either verifies someone’s immunization to COVID-19 or a negative test result, as they say outright mandating the vaccine could discriminate against those who can’t or refuse to get the vaccine.

While waiting for guidance from the government, IATA has begun testing its own digital passport, called the Travel Pass. Doctors can send test results or proof of vaccination to a person, who can link that information to the Travel Pass app prior to flying. Then travelers show the app to an agent, along with their actual passport and ticket.

The IATA Travel Pass is currently being tested by multiple international airlines. Courtesy of IATA.

These digital passports come with another hurdle, though: maintaining privacy.

Immunity passport apps are fraught with privacy flaws and pose big ethical problems, according to a report from security research company Top10VPN, which analyzed 65 digital health certificate apps operating around the world and found 82% had inadequate privacy policies.

Jon Callas at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the high-tech solution comes with too high a price tag and too high a risk for invasion of privacy. “We can do all of this with little pieces of paper,” he said.

Checking thousands of vaccination papers or test results would be a bottleneck to international travel, Flint said, saying the world shouldn’t use a “20th Century standard” when many things, such as tickets, have already gone digital.

For years, some countries have already taken on the task of checking proof-of-vaccination papers against yellow fever. This has become known as the “yellow paper,” and could be as easily applied to COVID-19, said Callas.

But the yellow card is “not safe; it’s not easy,” Caryn Seidman-Becker, chief executive officer of CLEAR, said at the Economic Club of New York on March 30. CLEAR, a biometric identity platform used at airports, has created its own “digital health credential,” called Health Pass that Seidman-Becker said will make travel “frictionless.”

But with regard to digital credentials, Callas said, “I don’t see why a paper form isn’t good enough. Every immigration form that I do, I sign it at the bottom, and say under penalty of perjury I assert this is true, and I don’t see why, ‘I got my COVID-19 vaccine’ isn’t just another box to tick.”

“They’re trying to sell digital passports,” he said “The people who are advocating this are the ones who want the rest of us to pay for that.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

Republicans slam vaccine passports as dystopian, but experts say they’ll help us get back to normal faster

vaccine passport
There’s a growing debate in the US over the use of COVID-19 vaccine passports.

  • Republicans are pushing against the use of vaccine passports, decrying them as authoritarian.
  • But experts say that digital health passes could get us back to normal more quickly.
  • A vaccine passport “can make all the things we love to do safer,” one expert told Insider
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As more and more Americans get vaccinated, Republicans are increasingly pushing back against local governments and businesses instituting the use of “vaccine passports.”

GOP lawmakers and leading conservatives have decried the move as akin to intrusive surveillance tactics employed by the Chinese government, but health experts say this is overblown and that some form of digital health pass could be crucial in bringing a sense of normalcy back to the US.

“Vaccine passports, if done right and done equitably, can be way to help us get back to normal more quickly. It can make all the things we love to do safer: travel, going to a sporting event, getting back to work,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, told Insider.

“What we’ve seen in this pandemic is that anything can be politicized, whether it’s a mask or vaccine, whatever it might be. But the truth is that vaccines are not only our best way of this pandemic, they’re our only way out of this pandemic – because it’s clear that we can’t change our behavior,” Gostin went on to say.

Vaccines will eventually get us to herd immunity and “we’ll be back to normal anyway,” Gostin said, but added that “in the interim we can get back more quickly with some kind of a digital health pass.”

Conservatives call vaccine passports ‘dystopian’

The criticism of vaccine passport initiatives and proposals from GOP figures comes as Republican voters exhibit higher levels of vaccine hesitancy than other groups.

Donald Trump Jr. in a tweet on Monday said that “authoritarian leftists want a Chinese-styled social credit system here in America,” adding that vaccine passports via the government or private sector “would create a two-tiered caste system.”

Former Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian-leaning ex-Republican who became an independent before he left Congress earlier this year, tweeted, “No vaccine passport. It doesn’t get much more dystopian than being required to show your ‘health papers’ wherever you go.”

But Amash faced swift pushback, particularly given requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination would not be especially different from immunizations that have already been mandated for travel to various countries over the years. Not to mention, all 50 states have legislation that require certain immunizations for public school children.

Along these lines, Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz told Amash that he respects him “immensely” but added that “we already do this and it’s fine.”

Rick DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, pledged to take executive action to ban the use of vaccine passports in his state. “It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society,” DeSantis said Monday.

Some experts are also concerned about vaccine passports, but say they can work if done right

Beyond the politicization of this issue by Republican lawmakers, some health experts and civil liberties groups have also expressed concerns that vaccine passports could have a negative impact on already marginalized groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) raised ethical questions surrounding “immunity passports” as early as May 2020, long before any vaccines were approved, warning that they “could exacerbate existing racial disparities, harming workers of color and people with disabilities in particular.”

Months into the distribution of vaccines, experts continue to voice similar worries.

“Immunity passports promise a way to go back to a more normal social and economic life, but the benefits they generate will be dispersed unequally, and it is not obvious that they are ethical,” Nicole Hassoun and Anders Herlitz, scholars of public health ethics, wrote in Scientific American earlier this month.

“On the one hand, immunity passports offer an opportunity for employees to go back to work and families to reunite,” they wrote. “On the other hand, they will not be available to everyone, and they will exacerbate existing inequalities.”

The World Health Organization has also said it does not support requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel, citing the limited availability of vaccines.

Governments across the world have discussed requiring some form of proof of vaccination in order to travel and participate in other activities, and they’ve already been implemented in some places.

Last month, vaccinated Israelis started getting a “green pass” that allows for access to venues and events. European leaders have backed the use of a “Digital Green Certificate” that would provide digital proof of vaccination and permit travel within the EU.

The White House on Monday said it would leave the matter of vaccine passports up to the private sector.

Meanwhile, New York on Friday became the first state in the country to introduce a vaccine verification app, which was tested earlier in the month at Brooklyn Nets and New York Rangers games. New York is opening up vaccine access to all adults in early April.

Gostin underscored that equitable distribution of vaccines is crucial to requiring some form of a digital health pass.

“It has to be done right. We can’t do it while you have vaccine scarcity,” Gostin said. “You have to make sure you have enough vaccines so that everyone who wants a vaccine can get a vaccine, otherwise it’s grossly unfair. And even then you need to make sure that you’re not leaving anybody behind – people who are disadvantaged and for one reason or another don’t want to or can’t get a vaccine. Equity has to be a big part of it.

Read the original article on Business Insider